PROVIDENCE — With just over a month until the primary, city residents filled the stifling Jim Gillen Teen Center on Thursday night as three candidates looking to succeed outgoing Jorge O. Elorza as mayor made their case on drug addiction recovery and harm reduction.
There was little disagreement on the major issues among the candidates, who are all Democrats. Each agreed housing is a human right, additional housing construction is necessary in the city, there is a lack of detox beds, and social service agencies need more support.
Members from the community, each who shared their own striking stories of addiction, recovery, and even being incarcerated, asked the candidates questions.
Brett Smiley, the former state director of administration, shared how he is in long-term recovery — 20 years this year — for alcoholism. He said finding recovery made him the man he is today, with stints as a board member with RICARES and serving on the state’s opioid task force. He promised to use to the mayor’s office as a way to lift those in recovery by promoting them to leadership positions, and used himself as an example.
City Councilor Nirva LaFortune, of Ward 3, spoke of how her sister started cutting herself at a young age, overdosed twice on drugs, and at the time didn’t have a program to turn to. She said her sister ended up getting help, but that it was difficult for her family to talk about mental health and substance abuse until her younger brother was rushed to Butler Hospital, admitting that he was struggling mentally and using drugs as well.
Gonzalo Cuervo, who was the one-time chief of staff for Secretary Nellie Gorbea and former Providence Mayor Angel Tavaras, said it would be “hard to find a family or individual that doesn’t have a story” about addiction or recovery in the city.
One key difference for the candidates was their willingness to use multi-year Tax Stabilization Agreements — often called TSAs — which usually involve low property tax payments up front and gradually increase until the deal ends. They’ve been used on major projects, such as the Superman building.
Cuervo said he knew the city was never going to be “flush with cash,” but that Providence has many tools at its disposal to help with housing. While LaFortune and Smiley both said they would continue using these agreements for the construction of housing, Gonzalo provocatively said they have been overused in projects such as the Superman building, which will potentially receive a 30-year tax stabilization agreement if approved by City Council.
“In Rhode Island and particularly in Providence, it’s the only tool,” said Cuervo. “They have been used to the point where wealthy developers and their well-connected lobbyists know that the first thing they are going to do before any new construction is negotiate a TSA.”
He added, “It’s false that it’s the only tool.”
LaFortune, who has previously criticized the Superman deal, said before leaving the City Council she plans on passing a “resident” TSA, which would offer developers a longer TSA based on how affordable the units are. “We need to have a truly affordable infrastructure,” she said. “The TSA is a tool... We have one of the highest commercial tax rates in the country.”
Smiley called the state’s current tax structure “uncompetitive,” but said he would put safeguards in place so developers are not taking advantage of the city. He repeatedly said housing is necessary for residents of Providence, “and not just college students.”
On recovery issues, Rhode Island lost more than 430 people to accidental overdoses in 2021 and 94 of those overdoses were based in Providence alone.
LaFortune said she would make sure the city works with the health department to bring more livesaving solutions such as Narcan, an opioid reversal drug. While two Providence police officers were stationed at the door, LaFortune said the city should not criminalize anyone who is going through a behavioral or mental health crisis.
“Instead of getting the help they need,” she said, “Many are finding themselves in the justice system. That’s something I want to change.”
LaFortune also said she would look to identify dilapidated buildings that could be used for affordable housing or recovery services, and would make the city’s large nonprofits pay property taxes on non-mission driven real estate they owned.
While some in the room might have been uncomfortable with the police officers in the room, Smiley said, he was happy to see them there.
“They need to build [positive] relationships with people in recovery,” said Smiley, and similarly to the other candidates, called for Providence police to receive more training in substance abuse.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 13.